WAXAHACHIE (CBSDFW.COM) - A chemical plant in Waxahachie caught fire Monday, sending enormous plumes of thick smoke into the air and forcing evacuations in the area.
The fire, at the Magnablend facility on U.S. Highway 287, started just before 11 a.m. It spread quickly throughout the facility.
At 5 p.m., Waxahachie Fire Chief David Hudgins said the fire was contained and U.S. 287 had been reopened except for a portion between the Waxahachie Civic Center and Solon Road.
"Our first priority obviously when we got to the location was to ensure that everyone was out of the building and accounted for," said Magnablend Environmental Health and Safety Manager Donald Golden. "Once we were sure that was the case the fire spread very rapidly. Fire departments were on the scene pretty quickly but it [the blaze] just seemed to take off and accelerate pretty quickly."
Hudgins said workers were mixing chemicals in a large vat Monday morning when they noticed steam coming from it, which is abnormal. Shortly afterward, the fire began.
Hudgins said emergency crews don't know exactly which chemicals were being mixed nor why they sparked the fire. The rapid blaze overcame a sprinkler system and destroyed a fire truck, but only two employees reported minor injuries and were okay by Monday night.
About 30 employees were inside when the fire broke out, and all escaped in time.
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The Ellis County Office of Emergency Management issued an evacuation order because of the fire and smoke. The Civil Emergency Message advised, "People in the area of Highway 287 and Interstate 35 East in Waxahachie should evacuate immediately."
About 1,000 people evacuated the area, including students at nearby Wedgewood Elementary School and Navarro College. Fire officials were concerned because flames spread under nearby tank cars that contained a highly flammable gasoline-type product. Navarro College will remain closed on Tuesday as well.
"As far as a scale of 1 to 10 of me being worried, 10 being the worst," Hudgins said, "I was at 9-and-a-half."
The tanker cars were coated with a protective jacket that prevented them from exploding, Hudgins said.
The evacuation order was lifted early Monday evening and the Environmental Protection Agency determined that air in the upper atmosphere did not pose a threat to the public.
"Following the fire today at the Magnablend plant in Waxahachie, the Environmental Protection Agency began testing our air quality," sounded an automated phone message sent to Waxahachie residents at about 4 p.m. "Preliminary results show no threat to public health."
Flames and fumes from the blaze were so intense that fire crews ultimately decided to let the fire burn itself out. "All firefighters have been pulled back because of the severity of the situation," said Amy Hollywood, a spokeswoman for the City of Waxahachie.
After the fire was settled and the hot spots were doused, Magnablend owner and CEO Scott Pendery called the blaze a "nightmare." The plant, one of the company's three in Waxahachie, employs 60 workers. They will all be shifted to other locations, Pendery said.
During the afternoon press conference Chief Hudgins gave some indication how the blaze got out of control. "We had a [chemical] reaction and a fast-moving fire. The building was sprinkled. We do believe that the fire overran the sprinkler system, and before we [fire crews] could get hooked up to it, it had already spread throughout the whole back of the building," Hudgins said.
According to the company website, Magnablend houses various organic and inorganic chemicals at the facility. It's a family-owned business that has been in operation for 35 years.
Lisa Wheeler, spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said the company also uses sulfuric, hydrochloric, nitric, and phosphoric acids. Wheeler said Magnablend has a clean safety record with the agency.
Fire departments from multiple cities were called in to combat the blaze.
The Environmental Protection Agency sent teams to monitor the air quality around the fire. An Air Monitoring Equipment Plane was called in from New Mexico to test the upper atmosphere, while ground-level tests will continue Tuesday.
The TCEQ was testing ground water for any runoff chemicals that seeped in. None of the tests Monday revealed any significant threat there, either.
Pendery said he plans to rebuild the plant, and will shift production and employees to other locations.
"We are going to find every way to put you at other facilities," Pendery said. "Thank God we have other facilities and we'll have the ability to move some of this production."
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